American-Scottish astronaut who took tartan to the moon

Born: March 15, 1932;

Died: May 26, 2018

ALAN Bean, who has died aged 86, was a pioneering American astronaut of Scots descent who took a swatch of tartan to the moon when he landed there in 1969, a few months after Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps. After his second mission, as commander of the USA’s first space station, Bean passed up the opportunity to fly NASA’s new Space Shuttle and turned to art, becoming a commercially successful painter of space and lunar scenes.

In America’s Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, a series of lunar missions were planned starting in 1968, a tense period when it seemed either nation could make it to the moon first. When several test flights culminated in the success of Apollo 11, Bean, his commander Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad and fellow American-Scottish crewmate Richard Gordon were ready to fly Apollo 12 within weeks. They would have made the first lunar landing had Armstrong’s mission failed.

Their giant Saturn rocket rose into a Florida thunderstorm in November 1969, with President Richard Nixon watching from the VIP stand – the only occasion a president ever turned up for a moon launch. Public relations pressure was surely a factor, and the dangers of the weather were swiftly confirmed when the spacecraft was struck twice by lighting and its power system went haywire.

It was Bean who saved the day. When Mission Control radioed a solution, it made no sense to commander Conrad, as he gazed at a control panel lit up “like a Christmas tree” with flashing warning lights. Bean remembered an obscure procedure from his training, then pressed the vital switch to re-set the rocket’s electrical circuits and resume a safe course.

Four days later, Bean and Conrad started their perilous descent, attempting a pinpoint landing in the moon’s Ocean of Storms, 900 miles from Armstrong’s site in the Sea of Tranquillity. Apollo 11 had lost its way, coming down five miles off target, and precision landing would be essential for later missions planned to visit sites with important geology, but more challenging terrain.

They were targeted at an unmanned Surveyor craft which had landed three years earlier and bounced to a halt inside a 200-yard wide crater. As their landing craft Intrepid pitched forward to reveal the view ahead, the crew were elated to recognise the crater pattern they had studied to guide their route.

“Amazing! Fantastic!” exclaimed Bean. “Hey! Look at that crater; right where it’s supposed to be.” Bean’s job was to call out the instrument readings while Conrad piloted the craft as it hovered on its rocket exhaust. “Pete, you got plenty of gas, babe. Hang in there. He’s got it made!”

They landed in a swirl of flying dust just 200 yards from the Surveyor, their accuracy paving the way for four subsequent moon landings. Bean and Conrad went outside to explore the area in two moonwalks, laying down experiments, examining the sun-bleached Surveyor, and collecting 75 pounds of priceless rock samples.

The stark, silent landscape of the Moon, with the brilliant ball of Earth hanging over his head in a black sky, made a deep impression on Bean. He later resolved to develop his artistic talent and become a full time painter to capture his extraordinary experiences.

Alan LaVern Bean was born in Wheeler, Texas, and went to Paschal High School in Fort Worth. His father worked as a soil scientist for the US government. After graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Texas in 1955, he joined the US Navy as a pilot – first in a jet squadron in Florida, then as a test pilot.

His family was related to John MacBean, the first of the clan to settle in America. John, son of Donald MacBean, was born about 1633 in Strathdearn, Inverness-shire. He was baptised at Faillie by the River Nairn, beside the present A9, five miles from Inverness.

When Cromwell's army smashed the forces of King Charles II at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, John MacBean aged 18 was one of 8,000 Scots taken captive and transported to the Americas. Recorded as John Beene on the transport documents, he arrived in Boston on the ship John and Sarah in 1652.

John was put into forced labour in a saw mill owned by a Scottish settler, Nicholas Lissen, in Dover, New Hampshire. His talents were clearly recognised by his master, as within a few years he had married his master’s daughter, Hannah. Gaining his freedom, John became a business partner with his father-in-law. Later he had a prosperous career in farming, real estate and tanning. John had a total of 12 children by two wives, and lived to the age of 85.

Throughout his astronaut days, Alan felt a special connection with his forebearer John MacBean.

He entered NASA as part of the third intake of astronauts in 1963, where he resumed his friendship, from their Navy days, with Pete Conrad. After his moon landing, Bean flew to the Skylab space station where his crew set a space endurance record of 59 days.

On leaving NASA in 1981, Bean doggedly built up his art business in Houston, and became the creator of highly marketable lunar scenes, with the unrivalled claim to be “the only artist who has walked on another world”. His originals, speckled with real moon dust, can sell for $175,000. His 1996 painting, Clan MacBean Arrives on the Moon, portrays the elation of his first steps in the lunar dust.

Bean’s crewmates joked about him bringing “the good luck of the MacBean genes” on their Moon flight. He also took a length of the clan tartan along, but contrary to rumour, he did not leave any lying in the lunar dust for posterity. He brought it all back to Earth and donated a piece to the Scottish Tartan Authority in 2011.

Alan Bean is survived by his wife Leslie, plus son Clay and daughter Amy Sue from a previous marriage. With his death last weekend in Texas, only four of the 12 humans who have walked on the Moon remain.